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Weisel, Leopold

(1804–1873), physician, ethnographer, and writer. Born in 1804 in the Czech city of Přeštice (Prestitz), Leopold Weisel devoted much of his literary career to the recovery of the oral traditions of Bohemian Jews. The son of a traveling cloth merchant, Weisel—whose original name was Joachim Löbl Weisel—spent his youth in Přeštice before moving to Prague to further his education. He lived as a medical student in Prague’s Jewish Town (Cz., Židovské město; Ger., Judenstadt) and supported himself as a private tutor for a number of Jewish families. During the 1830s and 1840s Weisel devoted most of his literary efforts to the collection and dissemination of Jewish folk tales from Prague, a project in which he collaborated with the non-Jewish folklorist Franz Klutschak (1814–1886), publishing some of his earliest efforts alongside those of Klutschak in the journal Panorama des Universums. Weisel was openly conscious of his status as a Jew who was losing contact with the world of traditional Jewish culture and he devoted this part of his career to capturing and preserving the rich folk traditions of the ghetto, which he accomplished by interviewing older residents of the Jewish quarter and recording their stories.

Weisel’s “Die Pinchasgasse: Eine jüdische Volkssage” appeared in Panorama des Universums in 1838. The story was reprinted, along with four other tales by Weisel, as “Sagen der Prager Juden” and included in the popular collection Sippurim: Eine Sammlung jüdischer Volkssagen, published in 1847 (and in numerous editions thereafter) by Wolf Pascheles. Other early works by Weisel include the short story “Meine erste Praxis” (My First Practice) in the journal Bohemia (1836); “Die Schnorrer oder jüdischen Bettler” (Schnorrer, or Jewish Peddlers; 1844); “Die Jeschiboth oder jüdischen Hochschulen” (Yeshivas, or Jewish University; 1845); and “Die Prager Juden, wie sie leben” (How Do the Prague Jews Live?; 1850), a longer work rich in descriptions of Jewish merchants, tradesmen, artists, and others.

In 1840 Weisel settled in the western Bohemian town of Všeruby (Neumark), where he worked as an obstetrician as well as a writer. It was in Všeruby that he met and married Ann Pavlovská, a Catholic woman, for whom he converted to Catholicism in 1843 (thereafter going by the name Georg Leopold Weisel). In light of Weisel’s conversion, it is interesting to note that his works often touch on the love between a Jew and a Christian. In the legend of Rabbi Amnon, a story from 1843, the main character puts a terrible curse on one such convert, and in “Friedhöfe” (Graveyards) and “Lusienheil” (Loisa’s Cure), the narrator disapproves of a mixed marriage. Weisel’s unpublished manuscripts include “Rabbi Jontev [Yom Tov] Purim,” the article “Suspicion,” and “Jajin Kidusch, oder die falsche Beschuldigung” (Yayin Kiddush, or False Accusation), written in 1858, which describes an accusation involving a ritual murder.

Widely known and respected as a physician, Weisel was often called to Bavaria to attend patients, although he was technically not permitted to travel there. In 1848, the Czech writer Božena Němcová settled in Všeruby and moved into the house next to Weisel’s. Though there is evidence that Weisel was envious of Němocvá’s literary successes, she appears to have strongly influenced his own political and literary development. It was she who introduced Weisel to the Choden people and their struggles, which led him to write an article in 1848 about the Choden Trial (a famous 1695 trial between the village of Choden and the lord Lamminger). In 1873, excerpts from the proceedings of this trial appeared in the journal Politika under the title “Vergessene Erzählungen” (Forgotten Tales). This work inspired the Czech writer Alois Jirásek to publish his well-known novel Psohlavci (Dogs’ Heads; 1886). During the revolutionary upheavals of 1848, Weisel published numerous articles supporting the national movements for freedom. He did not, however, engage directly in anti-Habsburg activities.

Suggested Reading

Josef Blau, ed., Aus dem Neumarker Landestor, by Georg Leopold Weisel, Beiträge zur sudetendeutschen Volkskunde 17 (Reichenberg, Ger., 1926); Jana Doleželová, “Questions of Folklore in the Legends of the Old Jewish Town Compiled by Leopold Weisel (1804–1870) [sic],” Judaica Bohemiae 12 (1976): 37–50; Ruth Kestenberg-Gladstein, Heraus aus der “Gasse”: Neuere Geschichte der Juden in den Böhmischen Ländern. Zweiter Teil: 1830–1890 (Münster, 2002), pp. 152–162; Hillel J. Kieval, Languages of Community: The Jewish Experience in the Czech Lands (Berkeley, 2000), pp. 106–110.